Years ago I worked in the student services office of a women's college. The administrative staff frequently planned conferences on "women's leadership." To me, these conferences were the equivalent of gathering to discuss penmanship. Empowering women was the constant theme, but empowering them for what? Leadership is a process through which something is made to happen. Should we empower Hitler, Stalin, and Mother Teresa alike? Increasingly, it seems, our citizens are engrossed by issues of form and only tangentially interested in those associated with content.
I contend, by the way, that this is the Achilles Heel of a lot of liberal ideology. Form over content is how we wound up in the mess we're currently in—where corporations have become people with individual rights while individuals are blasé about giving up rights. In discourse, the form/process (for instance, of discrimination) repeatedly overwhelms its content. Thus, we are assailed by assertions that women beating men is a societal ill equivalent to men beating women, or that black racism is as pernicious as white racism. I have previously discussed the fallacy of the latter assertion, so here I'll touch briefly on the irrationality of the former: While women do now and then murder husbands and boyfriends, statistically the problem is insignificant compared to that of men beating, torturing, and slaughtering wives and girlfriends—and those females reluctant to become or to remain wives and girlfriends.
Men kill their female intimate partners at about four times the rate that women kill their male intimate partners.
Several studies have confirmed that women’s physical violence towards intimate male partners is often in self-defense (DeKeseredy et al. 1997; Hamberger et al. 1994; Swan & Snow 2002, 301; Muelleman & Burgess 1998, 866)
Yesterday, while I was cooking and half-listening to the radio, I overheard a comment on the subject of education, something along the lines of "American high school students score 26th [I think] among Western countries in mathematics proficiency" and somewhere around 29th in science. But, the commentator said, there is a single area in which American students come in first: self-confidence.
When my children were tots, we parents were perennially urged by early childhood education experts to build the self-confidence of our offspring. My mother-in-law told a story on herself in this regard. Her son as a young boy was drawing pictures with a friend. Suddenly his friend crumpled his drawing and threw it vehemently into the wastebasket. "I hate it!" he said. "Take it to my mother," said her son. "She'll tell you it's good."
Our generation was obsessed with feeling good and with making our children feel good. In the Sunday New York Times Magazine, I read a quote that bears repeating: "Happiness is not a condition; it's a sensation." As parents, we sought happiness for our children as fervently as any cocaine addict in pursuit of his connection. For us, happiness was not only a condition; it was a mandatory condition. Happy outgoing children were the mark of good parenting. Shy, introspective children were the victims of inadequate genetic material.
As a result of parental indulgence, our children grew up believing in their entitlement and eventually in the entitlement of their children. Emaciated mothers could beg for nickels in bone-cutting cold, equally skinny children clinging to their legs, but loving, middle-class parents rushed past to get to the PlayStations and motorized scooters their little darlings required. No sacrifice was too great if it resulted in the illusion of happy, well-adjusted children. The trouble was that happy, well-adjusted children didn't necessarily grow up to be sensitive, caring adults. Sometimes they grew up to be selfish, callous business tycoons or conniving lawyers or ne'er-do-wells living off the proceeds of the labor of someone else. Having been continually commended and rewarded for doing nothing, they developed a grossly inflated sense of their own worth.
And so we see, in our society confidence blooms in inverse proportion to competence. The more that Americans arrive at poor judgments—about leaders, about security vs. civil liberties, about health care and war, about the order of our priorities—the more positive we become of the superiority of our positions. Fox News is nothing if not supremely arrogant about its heinous politics and Fox News is the ultimate expression of American self-congratulatory pomposity--and, worst of all, insensitivity.
It's inevitable, I suppose, that as we age, we regard history as enfolding all that's valuable and the future as little more than threatening. Thus, curmudgeons pontificate about the end of morality and decency and—yes—competency. Yet as I board the subway and am shoved aside by people thirty and forty years my junior, I can't help but recall my mother and the mothers of my friends slapping us for forgetting to say "Mr." or "Mrs." to our elders. I don't advocate that sort of abuse; I merely reflect on what's been lost since that treatment of children came to be correctly seen as abuse. We've grown more casual and there's plenty to celebrate in becoming more casual.
But having loosened the grip of mindless obedience to our so-called superiors, perhaps it's time to re-examine the notion that children should be congratulated when they don't do anything special. And perhaps it's time to begin once again to demand excellence—from our representatives, from our peers, from the products we purchase and the companies that service them, and even from our children.